Posted by Jake Shapiro
We all live in a cyclops submarine
Abyss is perhaps exactly the sort of game the Wii U eShop needs in greater numbers: adventurous little indie titles with strong artistic vision and a focus on core game mechanics. With a budget price tag, you can't afford not to try out Barcelona studio EnjoyUp Games' HD re-release of its attractive 2012 DSiWare title.
Reminiscent of early NES titles, Abyss is a minimalist affair without even any storyline unless you read the instruction manual: It’s the distant future of Earth in the year 3024 when humans have depleted almost all natural resources, and the world government has sent you, a creepy bio-mechanical deep-sea cyclops squid submarine called Nep2no, to harvest a new energy source called Gaia. There are no cutscenes and you don’t encounter anyone else on your journey; Abyss is a dark, difficult, and ultimately rewarding adventure.
Abyss limits its scope and concentrates on a satisfying core gameplay loop: you must navigate Nep2no through a series of underwater caverns, collecting the six Gaia orbs on each level. There are no enemies — the challenge comes from the level layouts themselves and the control scheme. As we noted in our review of the DSiWare version, Abyss’ simple controls are similar to those of Balloon Fight; all you do is steer your character with the control stick or D-pad, and accelerate with any of the face buttons (there are no touch screen controls).
Be careful, though, because the underwater physics mean even the slightest acceleration can send Nep2no hurtling towards a wall; abrupt changes in direction and 90-degree turns can be disastrous for first-time players. If you collide with the wall, Nep2no flashes for a few seconds before recovering; if you crash again while Nep2no’s flashing, you explode in a dazzling display of light and must start the level over again. Abyss is all about calculating momentum, so you can’t speed through the levels unless you’re an experienced Nep2no pilot; there’s no time limit, but your time for each level is recorded for the (offline) leaderboard.
The same action is displayed on both the GamePad and television screen, so off-TV play is simple, but it’s not recommended. Abyss features plenty of dark levels with black backgrounds and dark-dark-grey obstacles to differentiate between, and the full brightness of a true television display is easier to use for these colours than the relatively dim GamePad screen.
Abyss features two modes available at the start: Missions and Two-Player. Missions is the core experience, consisting of 12 short levels of increasingly infuriating difficulty. Two-player mode is exactly what it sounds like: two players racing to the finish — or to the death, whichever comes first — with one player on the GamePad screen and the other using the TV screen and Wii Remote. Unfortunately there’s no online play or support for the Wii U Pro Controller, but for such a simple low-cost game it’s not a huge transgression. Once you finish all 12 levels in Missions, you can unlock Dark Mode, an even tougher collection of levels with eight Gaia in each instead of six, and the time-attack Arcade Mode.
Where Abyss shines is its presentation. Nep2no sports a single wandering eye, lazy and disinterested in the danger surrounding it. The underwater trenches and caverns are pitch-black, illuminated only by Nep2no’s deep-sea antenna light, like a terrifying anglerfish. The light grows when Nep2no picks up Gaia, and dims over time or whenever Nep2no crashes into walls. The whole game feels like you’re deep in the ocean, with a slightly grainy, distorted filter over all the menus; the levels themselves look otherworldly, with super-saturated colours for the backgrounds and foreboding black walls everywhere. It’s a minimalist approach that matches Abyss’ design philosophy. The soundtrack consists of ambient electronica that fits the mood perfectly, although it’s a disappointingly scant number of songs.
The only contact Nep2no has with the outside world is an unnamed, static-filled voice on the radio. It’s a man with a delightfully Spanish accent narrating your adventure, warning you to “Slow down!” if you hit a wall, or “Woo hoo hoo! Mission complete!” when you reach the end of a level. When you die, he wails a brokenhearted “Nooooooo! Nep2noooo!” In such a bleak, alien game, the accompanying voice makes Abyss feel slightly more lighthearted and human.
The difficulty of Abyss won’t appeal to everyone. There's no tutorial, and the game doesn’t even tell you what the controls are — you have to figure everything out on your own. The low-fi graphics exacerbate the game's difficulty: the muddy, dark gameworld evokes a sense of hopelessness and despair. The learning curve is frighteningly steep, but stick with it and the limited control scheme reveals itself to be deeply nuanced; the “two hits and you’re dead” health system seems daunting, but it’s easy to jump right back into the short levels over and over again until you master them. Once you get into the rhythm, Abyss can be a relaxing, even meditative experience.
Abyss is a small game with limited appeal: tight, difficult controls, a grainy aesthetic, and not much variety in gameplay outside “get to the end of the level.” But developer EnjoyUp Games has embraced this minimalism with a fittingly ambient art style and an ethereal electronic soundtrack. If you take the time to learn them, the controls are nuanced and rewarding in a way that appeals to fans of old school reflex-based arcade-style games. Most importantly, Abyss is available at a particularly low price. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, it may be worth the minimal investment to check out Abyss.